More Quotation Ethics: The Martin Luther King Memorial Strikes Again…But It’s Maya Angelou’s Fault

Who said that quote inscribed on the MLK monument? Not Rev. King! Maybe that guy in the hat...

When I saw the Martin Luther King quote engraved on the north face of his monument at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, my immediate thought was: “A little full of ourselves there, are we, Marty?”

It reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Personally, I’ve always hated drum majors—prancing, flashy show-offs with big hats. I never thought of Martin Luther King as a drum major, or as someone prone to self-glorifying descriptions. I was relieved, therefore, to learn that what he really said was this, in a sermon two months before his death, speculating on what his eulogy might sound like:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Ahh! Now that’s the Rev. Martin Luther King I remember! Unfortunately, it’s not the one future generations of America will know, because a false quote, mischaracterizing his meaning and his character, is immortalized in stone on the National Mall.

African-American poet Maya Angelou objects. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” she said this week. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all.

“He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

Angelou says the paraphrase “minimizes the man.” “It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was. . . . It makes him seem an egotist.” Her main point:  “He would never have said that of himself. He said you might say it.”

When the explanation given by the memorial’s planners was told to her—that the full quotation wouldn’t fit, her response was terse and direct:

“Too bad!”

Exactly. Shame on Dr. King for not properly calibrating his words for convenient display, but too bad: the solution is not to twist, truncate, and eviscerate his meaning, his character and his language. The genuinely arrogant twits are the memorial’s planners, who have so little respect for the figure they are honoring that they chose centuries of misrepresentation over integrity.

The quote should be changed to reflect King’s intent, or removed. Ethically, there are no other options. Misquoting an important historical figure is always wrong, but placing a misquoted passage on that individual’s memorial is an insult, both to the honored man and history.

The equivalent would be to have the simplistic statement of Presbyterian minister William J. H. Boetcker, persistently and wrongly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, side by side with the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial. ( “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence. You cannot help small men by tearing down big men. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income. You cannot establish security on borrowed money. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they will not do for themselves.”) That wasn’t Lincoln. He didn’t say it. He wouldn’t say it. It would be wrong to tell posterity that he did.

Angelou herself, unfortunately, has to be assigned much of the responsibility for this fiasco; in fact, she owes Dr. King a personal apology. She was a member of the Memorial Commission’s Council of Historians, picked to select inscriptions for the memorial, but she did not attend inscription meetings. The memorial’s executive architect, Ed Jackson Jr., says that Angelou had advance notice of the proposed words to be engraved at the site, and plenty of time to register her objections.

Angelou is absolutely right that the misquote is an abomination, but the Commission included her in the process specifically to prevent something like this from happening. Maya Angelou didn’t do her job, and that is why Martin Luther King seems like “an arrogant twit” at his own memorial.

They should change the quote, and send her the bill.

13 thoughts on “More Quotation Ethics: The Martin Luther King Memorial Strikes Again…But It’s Maya Angelou’s Fault

  1. No, they should give Ed Jackson the bill. He has stated that he was in charge and the ultimate decision was his. Let that idiot pay for it.

  2. Oh—I forgot to say: Originally the full quote was going to go on the back of his statue but at the last minute they decided to put it on the front after the front had been prepared for a smaller quote. This is what happens when fools run projects.

  3. Jack, I would recommend that you look a little deeper into the statement by Ed Jackson. Just because he SAYS that she was kept informed and had plenty of time to object, doesn’t make it reality. I was recently involved in a project, although I was not a member of the committee. A friend of mine, however, WAS a member of the committee and was, presumably, kept informed of all of the decisions being made. This was not, in fact, true. And when I wrote text in support of fund-raising for the project, and when my friend spoke at the fund-raising event — with passion and conviction — that the project would do X, Y,. and Z, we did not know that, in fact, the project would only actually accomplish X and Y. The person in charge of the project had ample opportunity to correct what we wrote and said, but stayed silent. Only after the project was complete and we saw the obvious omission of Z and we confronted the project leader did he state that Z was rejected from the final plan. We did what we did in good faith that we were conveying accurate information, because we never had any updated information or correction from the source.

    • Right—but if there were meetings and she didn’t attend, the responsibility to learn what is being done, proposed and decided is co-equal with the responsibility to keep absent members informed. Angelou’s name is on the committee—she’s responsible and accountable.

  4. As one of the many white BRITS (Boys Raised in the South) of my era, I neither appreciated nor respected Dr. King until long after I was grown and became educated as to who and what he was, which was long after he was gone. It was a long trip out of ignorance on my part, and it is a shame that future generations who will be attempting to make that same journey will be misdirected by those who sought to honor him, but whose mission went astray in such a callous and careless manner.

  5. Well, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s probably to never reappoint the current members of the Memorial Commission’s Council of Historians.

    Mildly irrelevant observation: “Band director” would probably be a more accurate analogy for King’s role in the Civil Rights movement.

    Wildly irrelevant observation: If it means anything, the drum major is actually a fairly low-key position in most modern corps-style high school and college bands; none of the ones I’ve ever played with had batons or hats, nor did they even march except for parades. In fact, the job is fairly thankless, since their main job is to simply stand on top of a stand, face the band, and conduct with their hands. Just wanted to prevent any potential misunderstanding from other band-savvy commentators; marching band has changed a lot since (presumably) Jack was still in school.

  6. I HAVE to do this. You can’t give me this sort of a chance and not let me grab it. I’ll say up front that I agree 100% with what everybody says about this, but . . .


    I’m puzzled by the comments that the words on the monument do not accurately reflect Dr. King’s meaning and intention. The words are not attributed to him, but simply inscribed there.

    His own intent was crystal clear, was it not? “If you want to call me a drum major, then say this.” Whoever raised the memorial obviously DID want to call him a drum major, and respectfully complied with King’s instructions about how to do that.

    Time to duck behind the barricade now.

  7. I agree – changing “I” to “He” would fix the problem of the inscription. Then, it would clearly not be a paraphrase of his quote, but a reflection of his intent. Would that be too difficult?

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